There was so much expected from the Hurricanes’ defensive line following a lackluster 2019 season. Gregory Rousseau was developing into an uber star before our eyes, an unblockable athletic specimen that oozed with still-untapped potential despite his outstanding play. With a dominant 2020 season, he could even perhaps be the best defensive end in school history.
Then, COVID-19 hit, and the world spun out of control. Players understandably exercised the only control they have at the college level: their choice to play. Many with something to lose chose to opt out, and that unfortunately included Rousseau, a likely first round pick. Whether you agreed with it or not (and plenty of folks selfishly did not), it was absolutely his choice, and I think a fair one.
But all was not lost for the #15 jersey on the Miami defense, as I wrote about back on August 7. To quote the wise Yoda from Empire Strikes Back when Obi-Wan Kenobi said Luke was their last hope: “no, there is another.” And indeed there was. Enter Jaelan Phillips, the former #1 overall recruit and transfer from UCLA. A player who nearly retired for medical reasons before coming to Miami for a second chance. Defensive coordinator Blake Baker had these comments about Phillips prior to the season:
“I feel really good about him,” Baker said. “He did a standing back-flip the other day from a standstill position, so those kind of guys don’t really exist very often. Obviously, athletically, brings a lot to the table. Very, very smart young man.
“I think his best football is in front of him, knocking some of the rust off. He hasn’t played in a while. Athletically, it’s like creating a player on NCAA Football when they used to have that video game. ... He’s got all the tangibles and intangibles. You just got to put it together on the field.”
How right he was.
Opposite #15 was a player that received a ton of acclaim himself: Quincy Roche, a transfer from Temple. Roche had already made a name for himself at Temple, earning AAC defensive player of the year honors in 2019 with 44 tackles, 18 TFLs, and 13 sacks.
Suddenly, Miami’s “problem” of replacing the production of a player as once-in-a-decade as Rousseau was - on paper - solvable. And, as 2020 showed, Phillips and Roche formed perhaps the best DE tandem the school has ever seen.
The duo really made a name for themselves together on Saturday night at Louisville in a 47-34 Miami win, combining for 3.5 tackles for loss and being routinely in the backfield. The next week against FSU (one of the most aesthetically-pleasing games I’ve ever seen), the entire defense ate, but it was Phillips who finished one of the most memorable plays in recent memory (some bonus terrible offensive football to follow)...
Stitched together in one glorious GIF:— Yahoo Sports College Football (@YahooSportsCFB) September 27, 2020
Iowa State’s Brock Purdy vs. TCU and Florida State’s Jordan Travis vs. Miami
Which was worse? You make the call. pic.twitter.com/vKHkOWkZzy
The entire Miami team took one on the chin at Clemson, in all three phases (sans a FG block return for a TD). The following weeks against Pitt and Virginia, the defense displayed a bend-but-don’t-break approach, forcing 4 red zone field goals and doing enough to cover for a stagnant Miami running game. Roche was dominant against the Panthers, with 7 tackles, 4 TFLs, a split sack with Phillips, and a fumble recovery. Against UVA, Phillips led the defense with 7 tackles, showing the ability to get off blocks and be effective in run support.
The duo continued to make their impact felt as Miami’s defense ran a roller coaster ride to an 8-1 mark, with the defense and offense doing just enough to keep the score line marginally in Miami’s favor. Phillips earned ACC defensive player of the week in the thrilling win against NC State, with 10 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 1 sack, and a pass broken up. Against Duke, Roche and Phillips combined for 4 sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss in Miami’s first shutout win over a Power 5 team since 2001. The best defensive performance in decades, albeit against a badly overmatched Blue Devil squad.
Unfortunately, a Carolina-blue tidal wave crushed Miami’s defense in a devastating 62-26 loss in which Miami gave up the most rushing yards in its history and the most rushing yards by a RB tandem in college football history. From an all-time great defensive performance to an all-time worst.
But even a disastrous finale to a once-promising season can’t completely mar the season Miami’s starting ends put together. By his own lofty statistical standards, Roche’s 2020 season wasn’t the same - 27 tackles, 14.5 TFLs, 4.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, and 3 fumble recoveries - but he didn’t have the line mate across from him in prior years.
With that all said, my picks for MVP, most improved, and rookie of the year among the DEs are......
Positional MVP AND Most Improved: Jaelan Phillips. I mean....when you are one of the national comeback stories of the year, I’d say you have to be the most improved player, right? And there’s no doubt he was the best player on this defense. Phillips finished with 45 tackles and a team-high 8 sacks and 15.5 TFLs. He was unblockable for much of the season and put himself in the conversation of becoming a first-round draft pick. He earned first-team All-American honors by AFCA and second-team by the AP, FWAA, and Walter Camp. So, he - along with Jose Borregales - will have their names added to Miami’s storied list of All-Americans. But, somehow, the ACC decided he was a second-team All-ACC player. Such a slight fits right in with the ACC’s pettiness regarding Miami, but I think we’ve all come to accept that by now.
Rookie of the year: Jahfari Harvey. I didn’t make much mention, but Jahfari Harvey showed flashes in relief this season and appears to be the best bet of stepping into a starting role in 2021. I remember Harvey living in the backfield against FSU, and looking back at the game, he had 4 pressures. He is the most experienced returning end on the squad. (And yeah, he’s not a true freshman, but he’s still a freshman with very limited experience coming into 2020, so I’m calling him a rookie, k? I can’t consider new faces with experience like Roche and Phillips to be “rookies”.)
The remainder of the returning candidates to replace Roche and Phillips didn’t log much time by comparison. You have to think Cameron Williams and Chantz Williams will get the longest looks across from Harvey for 2021, as will Tennessee transfer DeAndre Johnson. Cameron and Chantz each appeared in 4 games last year. Johnson will be interesting to watch in the offseason. He steadily improved his output at Tennessee, but did not ultimately come close to a double-digit sack figure on an unremarkable Tennessee defense. Zach McCloud could also be a candidate to stay at DE, where he played in the Cheez It Bowl.
In any event, the offseason battle at DE will be one of the most intriguing to watch, as Miami will have to see some young players grow up fast and fill some very big shoes.